Students at a lecture at the Pyongyang University of Medicine on April 22. More recently, the campus has reportedly has been the focus of an investigation into some male students' sexually predatory behavior and the officials who looked the other way on account of the students' elite status. Photo: AFP / Kim Won Jin

Four North Korean medical students accused of sexual predation have been shot dead by firing squad while officials judged to have let them get away with bad behavior have been banished to work at provincial mines, forests and farms, according to an article from Daily NK.

If true, the report suggests that the North Korean regime may have become more serious than usual about its oft-trumpeted goal of rooting out corruption. An estimated 60 people including the officials’s families, who accompanied them into banishment, were punished in the clampdown, the report said.

“An enlarged meeting of the Central Committee’s Political Bureau on November 15 criticized criminal activity at Pyongyang Medical University, but the meeting did not reveal the particulars of what criminal activity occurred,” the story by reporter Ha Yoon Ah said.

“According to a Daily NK source in Pyongyang, the capital city is reportedly already rife with rumors following public executions and mass exiles surrounding the criminal activity,” the Seoul-based outlet that gets its news primarily by cellphone from North Korean citizens reported. 

The anonymous source said that four sons of ruling Workers’ Party Central Committee cadres in their second to fourth years at Pyongyang Medical University had “committed the ‘anti-socialist’ crime of repeatedly sexually abusing certain female students and demanding sexual favors from them. According to the source, the victims were then paid hush money.” 

In August, said the source, “one of the victims took her own life. To address the injustice, the victim’s mother directly appealed to the university’s party committee to punish the male students involved. Pyongyang Medical University, however, took no action against the male students, so the mother petitioned the Ministry of Social Security branch in Chung-guyok, the district where the university is located.

“While North Korean authorities are required to process these petitions and inform the petitioner of the results, the district Ministry of Social Security branch” – the police – “provided no response to the woman.” 

‘Kim’s muscle’

In the end, reported DailyNK’s source, “the mother decided to deliver a letter to the Central Committee herself, so she snuck into Pyongyang and delivered a petition letter to the Central Committee. Hiding at a relative’s home in Pyongyang, she waited for the petition to be processed. But when no response emerged, she visited the office where she had dropped off the petition.

“The desk clerk and staff who had received her petition letter recognized her and listened to her story again. Judging that a serious anti-socialist crime had taken place instigated by and with tacit approval from those with power, they informed Jo Yong Won, first vice-director of the party’s Organization and Guidance Department.

That did it. It’s hard to go higher than “Kim Jong Un’s muscle,” as the department has been called. Analysts say Jo himself has been one of the closest North Korean officials to Kim Jong Un, basing that calculation on the number of times officials are mentioned as having accompanied the leader for “on-the-spot guidance” tours.

“When word of the matter finally reached the top,” DailyNK’s report says, “the party committee of Pyongyang Medical University underwent an intensive week-long investigation by the Organization and Guidance Department in early October. Afterwards, the university party committee, which used its authority to overlook the students’ anti-socialist acts – as well as the party and security officials who failed to properly provide party guidance process petitions or enforce the law in the case – were expelled from the party, stripped of their positions or discharged, and exiled to the provinces along with their families.”

Students wearing face masks disinfect their hands and undergo a temperature check as they arrive for a lecture on preventative measures against the novel coronavirus at the Pyongyang University of Medicine on April 22. Photo: AFP/Kim Won Jin

Quoting its source, Daily NK continued: “The four male students at Pyongyang Medical University were involved in a well-known incident from about a decade ago when they were 13 or 14 years old. They got caught buying sex in a place of prostitution in Pyongchon-guyok. At the time they were locked up, but released after seven days thanks to the power of their parents,” said the source.

Even cops who’d been involved in that earlier case “were exiled this time around for failing to nip anti-socialist activities in the bud.”

In addition, the report says, “all seven members of the party committee of Pyongyang Medical University who overlooked the students’ anti-socialist crimes were sent with their families to Chagang Province to work at a calcium carbonate mine in Sijung County and a logging station in Rangrim County.”

“Five officials from the Ministry of Public Security in Chung-guyok who squashed the petition and the Ministry of Public Security officials who were responsible for failing to properly uphold the law during the Pyongcheon incident were exiled with their families to a farm in Rinsan, North Hwanghae Province.”

Long history

Going back to the time of the current ruler’s grandfather’s reign, encouraging citizens to take pride in the lack of skeletons in the closet that might keep them from gaining or retaining membership in the elite was always the regime’s policy.

All the way down the complicated North Korean class hierarchy youngsters typically have found their treatment, from even their earliest years, to be governed by family socio-economic position, or songbun – essentially the statuses of their parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles.

Still, whenever that mindset became problematic in itself, the regime might eventually see the need to act. So it was with an earlier antisocial phenomenon, violent gangs, of which several defectors told me they had been members while young.

Take Dong Young-jun, who grew up in privilege in Bukchong, the big country town in North Hamgyong Province where he was born in 1965. “My family was very well off,” he told me. “Whenever I met people who were undergoing hardship of hunger, I felt especially thankful for my parents.”

Dong’s father worked as an investigator in “internal affairs,” meaning he was checking up on his fellow North Koreans. Following the turmoil of the Korean War, “many people lied about their backgrounds,” Dong explained.

Employed by a secret police organization that in 1973 was renamed Department of State Security, his father “was digging up their true backgrounds.” On the other side of the family Dong’s mother, a doctor, had some good connections in Pyongyang. One of her cousins was a senior colonel working at a military academy. Another was a member of the Supreme People’s Assembly.

Dong grew up, he told me, as a “fanatic,” idolizing Kim Il-sung and urging his schoolmates to do the same. “All through elementary school, junior high and high school, I was student body president. Even at the university, I was on the student council.”

Noting that he was a smoker, I asked when he had started. His answer, totally unexpected, introduced me to a facet of North Korea that I had neither heard nor read about.

“At age 11,” was Dong’s reply. “In North Korean schools there are gangs that fight a lot. They consider the first boy to suffer a nose-bleed the loser. They believe if you smoke a lot you won’t get a nose-bleed.”

So Dong the model student had led a double life, moonlighting as a member of a violent teenage gang? Naturally, I wanted to know more, and Dong obliged me.

“Gangs are rated according to the social rank of the members’ fathers,” he told me. “These aren’t formal groups, but this has been going on for years – for generations. In most cases, if your father is very high ranking you get the power. You hang out with kids from similar family backgrounds.”

Other defectors talked with me about juvenile rumbles. One was Ahn Choong-hak, who said that the gang fights sometimes involved as many as 50 or 60 boys at a time. But Ahn added that there had been a crackdown starting in 1974.

It “became a social issue. The authorities suggested that South Korean spies were organizing the violence. Participants were portrayed as dissidents. So people became afraid to join in.”

In the latter part of the 1970s, “gang fights disappeared from the face of North Korea.”

Students wearing face masks disinfect a classroom prior to a lecture on preventative measures against the novel coronavirus at the Pyongyang University of Medicine on April 22. Photo: AFP / Kim Won Jin

Death penalty

Will historians look back on 2020 as the year when gangs of young males with high songbun stopped engaging in organized sexual abuse?

We may well read into the DailyNK account a serious determination on the part of the Kim Jong Un regime to make that happen. Start with the use of capital punishment.

The parents of the four students aren’t mentioned among the approximately 60 people who were exiled from Pyongyang to the provinces over the matter. However – no doubt sufficiently horrifying and deterring the parents as well as many others – North Korean authorities publicly executed the four students at Pyongyang Medical University by firing squad, the story goes.

“It seems the authorities opted for a public execution to warn people against anti-socialist acts and to instill caution and fear,” said DailyNK.

Bear in mind that the perpetrators’ parents, even if they’d had access to the very top of the pyramid, a level higher than Jo’s, would have had their work cut out for them pleading for the lives of their flesh and blood.

After all, ruler Kim Jong Un previously had both his uncle and his older half brother killed for allegedly plotting against him.

Meanwhile, said DailyNK, North Korean authorities have reportedly carried out a full-scale ideological inspection of the party’s Science and Education Department for providing shoddy party guidance to the university, and have replaced problematic cadres.

They also plan to replace four other individuals, including a petition clerk and a first vice-section chief, for overlooking petitions, which they claim has harmed the people’s faith in the party.

“The source said the North Korean authorities plan to severely punish members of the Pyongyang Defense Command and the Ministry of State Security’s Checkpoint 10 for failing to crack down on Pyongyang Medical University students using taxis to roam the country and engaging in unhealthy lifestyles while movement restrictions are in place to combat Covid-19.”

Bradley K. Martin is the author of Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader: North Korea and the Kim Dynasty, from which some of the material in this article is excerpted.